Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.
The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.
Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.
The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).
Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.
This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).
Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).
The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon